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Measuring the Matness: Investigating Upset Trends at the NCAA DI Championships (Part One)

Drew Mattin, Ronnie Perry

Photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com

March Matness never disappoints and as we sit at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships each year watching as outcomes unfold that we never expected, someone always asks…is this the craziest tournament ever?  There are many ways to measure the chaos in an attempt to determine which year of insanity took us on a wilder ride than any other.  The first, which we’ll look at today, is to look at the early rounds.  Thursday is, on paper, a chance for title contenders to get into the flow of the tournament.  For those whose teams are in contention, bonus points are the major concern rather than simply advancing.  However, no one is safe.  Just this year we saw a two seed, Joey Lavallee (Missouri) who was also a returning NCAA finalist, clipped in his opening match by Kennedy Monday (North Carolina).  We looked at the last 10 years of upsets through the round of 16 to see how the years compare.

Year Rd 1 Rd 2 Pigtails Total
2009 17 16 2 35
2010 23 14 1 38
2011 15 9 0 24
2012 18 14 0 32
2013 19 15 0 34
2014 23 20 0 43
2015 34 20 0 54
2016 29 17 0 46
2017 22 15 0 37
2018 24 14 0 38

This table contains all upsets by seed in each tournament over the last 10 years.  Before 2014, only 12 wrestlers were seeded at each weight meaning there were fewer chances for upsets.  The data reflects that with a noticeable uptick in upsets over the last five years.  However, this year’s event and last year’s have gotten back down to levels we saw at times in the 12 seed era.  That is a little surprising considering how crazy Cleveland seemed sitting in the arena watching it all unfold.  The 2018 tournament came nowhere near the levels of anarchy that were reached early in the competitions from 2014-2016.  Still, it is difficult to compare the 12 seed fields to the ones with 16 seeds.  Next, we took out all the upsets of 13-16 seeds to normalize the data somewhat.

Year Rd 1 Rd 2 Pigtails Total
2009 17 16 2 35
2010 23 14 1 38
2011 15 9 0 24
2012 18 14 0 32
2013 19 15 0 34
2014 10 20 0 30
2015 21 20 0 41
2016 19 17 0 36
2017 12 15 0 27
2018 15 14 0 29

Without upsets of the 13 through 16 seeds factored in, the madness seems more consistent.  The 2015 tournament continues to stick out, but it isn’t as far removed from other wild years and instead of an extended spike from 2014-2016, it seems like an aberration.  The last two tournaments aren’t way below average and they exceed the 2011 tournament, but there is a marked decline in early upsets.  For this table, we left in 13 through 16 seeds knocking off top four seeds in the second round.  While those matches used to be against unseeded wrestlers with the 13th through 16th best athletes randomly drawn in, the effect seems likely to be negligible.  While the four-seed almost always gets a tougher match, that 13th best guy was always battling a seed in one of the first two rounds before anyway, the extra seeds simply make sure he is in a certain place rather than randomizing who gets the toughest unseeded wrestler to scrap with.

While the numbers show that the first two rounds have been a bit quieter the last two years, we should also acknowledge that there are levels of upsets.  One of the best wrestlers in the tournament going down is a much bigger story than a 12 seed dropping.  Also, our current setup includes the nine seed beating the eight and 10 over seven as upsets when many times those are toss-up matches.  If we cut the data down to only include a top-six seed falling, it should eliminate the toss-ups and let us focus on the biggest happenings.

Year Rd 1 Rd 2 Pigtails Total
2009 6 8 1 15
2010 7 4 0 11
2011 4 5 0 9
2012 4 5 0 9
2013 4 7 0 11
2014 3 11 0 14
2015 7 13 0 20
2016 7 11 0 18
2017 2 8 0 10
2018 2 7 0 9

Looking at upsets over the top six seeds only shows the last two tournaments are fairly normal overall.  2014-2016 once again look like a spike of insanity, though we also had a crazy tournament in 2009 using this measure.  The most striking thing about 2017 and 2018, though, is a lack of top dogs dropping their opening matches.  Considering one of the four over the past two years was Nick Suriano’s default in 2017, there have only been three such upsets in the round of 32 where the wrestlers actually competed.  Taking that in a vacuum, the introduction of the 13 through 16 seeds should result in fewer top six seeds losing in the first round as the top four now face, at best, the wrestler who would be seeded 17th rather than possibly drawing the 13 seed as they could have done when those guys were in the unseeded pool.  That effect is likely small as there is a lot of random chance involved, but the unseeded pool is unquestionably less dangerous than it was.  However, this was also the case in 2015 and 2016 which saw as many top six upsets in the round of 32 as any tournament over the last 10 years.

Looking at just the top four in the opening round reveals the same trend in the last two tournaments.  In the last five NCAAs before 16 seeds, top four upsets in the opening round went 3-3-1-3-3.  In the first five years of the 16 seed era, they went 1-3-4-1-1 (again, the one in 2017 was Suriano, but there were defaults in other years too).  So, they are down, but they weren’t until 2017 and 2018.  It will be interesting to see if they trend back up in the coming years or if this is the new normal.

As I mentioned above, there are many ways to measure chaos.  While this one seems to show the last two NCAA tournaments were relatively tame, it doesn’t account for deep runs by unseeded or double-digit seeded wrestlers or top seeds missing the podium altogether.  Stay tuned for more as we attempt to measure the madness.

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